The Mullahs Killed Michael Jackson

[Editor’s Warning: elitist liberal moralizing to follow]

Dan Savage:

The Iranian regime has accused the CIA of killing Neda in order to win sympathy for the protesters and create disorder in Iran. I accuse the Iranian regime of killing Michael Jackson to end all coverage of the protests in Iran on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC.

(“The Mullahs Killed Michael Jackson,” SLOG, The Stranger, 25 June 2009)

It’s unfortunate that the public and the media are so transfixed by the solipsistic, bread-and-circus phantasmagoria. Entertainment trumps world history every time.

Dan Savage’s Mother

I think that, like just about everyone else, I view my life as a series of cycles running Monday through Sunday. Some may pick Sunday through Saturday, but whatever the case, somewhere back in the mists of time someone arbitrarily picked the seven day grouping as the next most basic division after the day and with all the institutional reification, we just think that way. No TGIF for me: the high point of my week is Thursday morning. I get coffee and a baked good on my way in and just as soon as my work PC is booted up, I bring up the website of The Stranger and spend the most coveted fifteen minutes of me week immersed in the wit and wisdom of Dan Savage and the depravity and befuddlement of his correspondents. Hungry pervert that I am, this is indisputably the highpoint of my week.

I followed my normal routine this week with the usual growing anticipation. It started slow — a lot of Mr. Savage’s own words — I usually prefer the columns with more of his own writing than that of his advice seekers, but I was waiting for the punch line, but there wasn’t one this time (“At a Loss,” The Stranger, Vol. 17, No. 31, 10 April 2008).

I thought I could bang out a column today — a regular column, a column about my readers’ problems and their freaky fetishes and all those asshole politicians out there. You know, the usual.

The day my son was born, I managed to slip out of the maternity ward and write a column; I wrote one the day I was indicted by the state of Iowa for licking Gary Bauer’s doorknobs. (I was actually indicted for voter fraud — on a trumped-up charge, your honor — but Bauer’s knob needs all the attention it can get.) I’ve written columns on days that I was dumped and on the morning of 9/11. So I figured that I could bang out a column today.

I opened my laptop and started reading your letters. I love reading your letters — I do. But I couldn’t get into it. I just don’t have a column in me this week. I’m disappointed in myself. I write this column at Ann Landers’s desk, for crying out loud, and the old lady banged out a heartbreaking, truncated column when her marriage collapsed. If Landers could bang one out under that kind of emotional strain, then I could damn well bang one out, too. Just do it, right? Just fucking do it. But I just fucking can’t.

My mother died on Monday.

S. and I have read both of Dan Savage’s personal books. We read The Kid one after the other at the recommendation of a coworker (thanks Donna). I read The Commitment to S. as she drove on a number of five hour trips back and forth to her parents’. We laughed and laughed and got angry and were provoked to numerous discussions and had some sentimental moments. We have pushed these books on anyone we judged sufficiently edgy and open minded to enjoy them as well. (I have previously commented here.)

One of the standout characters of these books has been Dan Savage’s mother. I have vague imaginings in my mind’s eye of the Chicago home where Mr. Savage grew up, where the kitchen must have been situated with respect to the rest of the house (the referenced learning to bake cakes), what the back alley must have looked like, et cetera. She was alternately a voice of calm and reason intervening at the apex of a crazy moment, or someone humorously driving Mr. Savage to such a situation in her humorously pillared idiosyncratic insistence — especially so in The Commitment.

There is also something deeply weird about my sad response. My first inclination is to blame my emotional involvement with a complete stranger on the exhibitionism and voyeurism of the Internet age. But I imagine that people have been becoming emotionally involved with famous people, national leaders, writers who have used their biography as source material, et cetera for generations. Perhaps it is a phenomena of the wider age of mass media.

Whatever the case, I feel like Dan Savage is a friend of mine — if not exactly in the usual meaning of “friend” — even if I’m a complete stranger to him. His books have taken life’s milestones as their subjects and given them a contemporary, tradition-defying take. I am hoping that coping with death — certainly one of life’s milestones — may be the subject of his next book. And maybe it can be a platform for how an atheist cops with it.

The Prisoners Are Also the Jailers

Dan Savage devotes his column today to gay teenagers struggling with the closet. To one recently out lesbian highschooler stuck in a small-minded town he writes (“How to Cope in the Closet,” The Stranger, 13 March 2008):

The shits conspiring to make you miserable, TALI, are unlikely to have lives anywhere near as interesting as the one on which you’re about to embark. Your classmates are making you miserable now because they know, deep down in their little black hearts, that their lives are going to be duller than day-old douche water compared to yours. Their lives aren’t going to be dull because they’re straight, TALI, but because the value they place on conformity — that’s the reason they feel they have a right to abuse you now — is a prison they’ve constructed around themselves.

Contra The End of History and the Last Man, someone should make a study of that other force in the composition of humanity, every bit as fundamental as thymos, the demand for conformity. It would seem to be the central front of resistance to the march of liberalism. One can imagine that in socially oppressive countries the world over it is some deeply felt need for everyone to cohere, the tendency to see any difference as a personal affront to one’s self — among the politically powerful, but among the masses as well — that is the cause of the oppressive culture.

I’m not sure how adequately I have characterized it here as the demand for conformity. I’m not sure that is the fundamental feature. Perhaps a certain commonality is required to execute that similarly fundamental impulse, the us-them distinction. Or perhaps conformity is required for adequate mirroring. Again, I think that a study, informed by all the human sciences, is in order — its cognitive and evolutionary source, its logical structure, its sociological operation, its historical and political consequence. As a fundamental characteristic of the human psyche, its suppression, like so many other human blights, must be subdued anew each generation. But having made a more thorough study we might forge more effective weapons to the cause. To suggest the Foucaultian point, to make a study would itself be to forge one such weapon.

Transformation of Media

Dan Savage strikes a forward-looking tone in discussing some organizational changes at The Stranger (“The More Things Change,” SLOG, 19 September 2007):

You’re reading this online, so you’re probably aware that The Stranger isn’t just a newspaper anymore: In addition to our weekly print edition, we’ve got blogs, podcasts, video, tons of expanded web content, and the occasional amateur porn contest. In order to manage the growth of our editorial content — in order to keep putting out Seattle’s only newspaper while at the same time running the best alt-weekly website in the country — we’ve had to change our editorial department’s structure.

Media is changing, as inevitably it will under the pressure of technology. One can be matter-of-fact about it, or try to get out ahead of it and shape the coming new world or one can endure the slow extinction of a species whose ecological niche is dwindling. “The Stranger isn’t just a newspaper anymore.” What a breath of fresh air. And this from a man who just two years ago wrote as a guest blogger (“Who Am I? Why Am I Here?, Daily Dish, 8 August 2005),

“Savage Love” readers have been asking me to start a blog of my own for, oh, six or seven years now and I’ve resisted. I’m a Luddite, I confess, one of the ways in which my deeply conservative soul expresses itself. It was only a few years ago that I started accepting email at “Savage Love” …

This reminds me that Matthew Yglesias had a subdued blog-triumphalism mini-kick back in July-August that unlike most blog-triumphalism was really pretty interesting.

Now With Charts,” The, 24 July 2007

This is a reminder, I think, of why we should look forward to the day when the op-ed column is a dead format and everyone just blogs. Brooks’ original column would, obviously, have been better if it — like Nyhan’s reply — had come with links to data and charts. What’s more, it’d be good if we could expect Brooks to reply to the sort of criticisms he’s getting from Nyhan, Dean Baker, and others. Maybe he has something fascinating to say on his own behalf. But the way the columnizing world works, there’s almost no chance he’ll address his next column to trying to rebut the critics of this one. But a back-and-forth debate on this subject with links and charts and data would be much more interesting than what we’re going to get instead where liberals decide Brooks is a liar and Brooks remains convinced that liberals are crazy.

Better Get a New Job,” The, 19 August 2007

As Kevin Drum says there was no crowding out here where what Marty Lederman or Duncan Black or Andrew or I were doing somehow made it more difficult for newspapers to do investigative reporting. If anything, the reverse is true. The widespread availability of a vast sea of armchair analysis and commentary on the internet will, over time, force large, professionalized news organizations to focus on their core, hard-to-duplicate competencies — and spend less time on the sort of fact-averse punditry Skube’s doing right here.

It was easier to see the harrumphing of the recording industry as what it was: the slothful groan of the vested interest in the face of a new upstart. There was too much crass money lying around for us to not see through all their protestations about art. Journalists and writers have a more subtly wrought tale to spin.

I particularly like Mr. Yglesias’s second point. The bloggosphere and the mainstream media are like countries in the economist’s parable of comparative advantage. And like the citizenry of those countries, bloggers and journalists can’t help but see the shifts and specialization from which the advantage arises as anything but threatening. “They took our jobs.”

It’s worth noting that in the theory of comparative advantage both countries benefit from specialization even when one country is superior at all activities in question. Perhaps it won’t matter so much that bloggers are just a bunch of guys in their pajamas and that politicians have learned how to game the press.

Bad Words

Dan Savage on the juvenile refusal of naughty words among mainstream publications (“Don’t Be Such a Fucking Pansy, David,” SLOG, 6 August 2007):

Oh, David. Newspapers are for adults. Blogs are for adults. And adults use words like “fuck” all the time. Certainly newspaper writers and editors do — at weeklies and dailies. Even the President and Vice President use profanity, as the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently noted. So why are daily newspapers written and edited as if their readers are a bunch of prissy ol’ clenchbutts?

I don’t think that your average paper should be written in the tone of The Stranger, but it’s more professional to report a quote as it was spoken than to refer to some hackneyed euphemism cribbed from one of your grandmothers old-time stories. If it includes a swear word, print the swear word.

Recently I went to see Robert Dallek talk on his book, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power at Politics & Prose. Now Politics & Prose is what they call a family store: for their author talks a van from an area assisted living facility regularly disgorges a mob of gray-hairs. And Mr. Dallek isn’t a young scholar anymore. But to hear Mr. Dallek rattle off excerpts from the Nixon transcripts — forget Oliver Stone, the ones who should make a film about Nixon should be the Cohen brothers (need a clue? Try the The Big Lebowski: The Fucking Short Version). And if we made it through the actual Nixon administration we can make it through a few reanimated recitals of his vulgar ramblings.

As that brilliant, closing line from Apocalypse Now goes, “We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘fuck’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene.”

Mr. Savage follows it up with a few more words on this issue: “Ruffians?,” and “Necessary Profanity.”

The Horror of the Ambiguous Years

Matthew Yglesias excerpts what he considers an interesting point from David Brooks’s latest column (“Why I Read David Brooks,” 10 July 2007″; The New Lone Rangers,” The New York Times, 10 July 2007).

Now young people face a social frontier of their own. They hit puberty around 13 and many don’t get married until they’re past 30. That’s two decades of coupling, uncoupling, hooking up, relationships and shopping around. This period isn’t a transition anymore. It’s a sprawling life stage, and nobody knows the rules.

It’s an interesting point — and one that I first encountered, in a much more snarkie form in Dan Savage’s book, The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family:

Think about the way many straight people live today. After college, straight men and women move to the big city. Their first orders of business are landing good jobs and finding cool apartments. Then the hunt for sex begins. Most young straights aren’t interested in anything serious, so they avoid dating and look for “friends with benefits,” or they just “hook up,” a.k.a. engage in no-strings-attached sex with anonymous or nearly anonymous partners. Some want to have relationships, but find it hard to make a commitment, so they engage in what’s known as “serial monogamy,” i.e., they have a series of sexually exclusive, short-term relationships. When they’re not having sex, they’re going to gyms, drinking, and dancing. And since they don’t have kids, these young, hip, urban straight people have lots of disposable income to spend on art, travel, clothes, restaurants, booze and other recreational drugs.

And do you know what all of that hooking up, drinking, and partying used to be called? “The Gay Lifestyle.” Substitute “trick” for “hook-up,” and “fuck buddies” for “friends with benefits,” and “unstable relationships” for “serial monogamy,” and straight people all over the United States are living the Gay Lifestyle, circa 1978. The only difference is that social conservatives don’t condemn straights for being hedonists or attempt to legislate against the straight version of the Gay Lifestyle. (pp. 147-148)

It’s strange that Mr. Savage would make this last point since he has been so vociferous about the ambition and breadth of right-wing anti-sex activities and their extension to include straight sexuality as well (e.g. the “Straight Rights Updates” at the end of the following Savage Love columns: “Worry Warts,” 19 May 2005; “Stepdad Seeking,” 10 November 2005; “Ford Puff,” 15 December 2005; “Downers,” 23 March 2006). But it would seem that at least the public face of right-wing anti-heterosexual sex is not demagoguery so much as sentimentality and weepy attempts to talk youngsters out of their errant ways. And this brings me back to David Brooks.

The problem with Mr. Brooks’s social commentary is that he is an interesting, observant, sensitive man who happens to have his intellect polluted by an ideology to which he clings too insistently. He has a way of starting with a very interesting social observation, chasing it about a quarter the way down the path of analysis, but before he can unpack the phenomena in all its complexity, he then ever so gingerly hammers it into the standard right-wing social categories, at which point analysis dies.

I can’t help but gag myself with a spoon every time a read one of these wilting flower articles by David Brooks or Leon Kass or Harvey Mansfield. Will young women be permanently emotionally scarred by their ordeal with an ambiguous social situation? How can they possibly recover from a few “lost years”? Will young women be able to endure the trial of uncertainty about the future? While right-wing social intellectuals put the back of their wrist to their forehead and look to the sky over these burning questions, others might see these situations as vital growth experiences. Would enduring a little disappointment kill a person? Who doesn’t have to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty in numerous aspects of their lives?

But the sexual ideal of these men is to be an emotional rock to a woman who sits at a lower station, folds her legs gently to the side and looks up admiringly at hubby. And they are of the opinion that their sexual ideal should be ours too.